Monday, May 27, 2013

Intellectual honesty and the ethical requirements of blogging

If you decide to comment in the public sphere about either (1) the specific views of particular others, or (2) the views of a certain general family of views ("the libertarians" or "left liberals"), you have an ethical/moral responsibility to get those views right, to put in the time and effort to understand the general claims and arguments, and their underlying bases and fundamental commitments.  If you cannot do this, you ought not comment.  If you nevertheless do so, whether in an academic article or in a blog post, you are ethically/morally blameworthy.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Ideal and Nonideal theory, some questions to think about

1. Suppose scientists were to discover a “partiality gene” that all humans possess.  According to the scientists, human beings randomly developed a gene that drives human agents to impart greater value and importance on persons and projects that are closer in proximity (intimacy) to the individual in question.  What difference, if any, should such a finding make to how we should think about questions of communal / societal / global moral responsibilities and the demands of justice?
2.  Suppose you are a married man.  You are in a marriage going on 10 years and a father of three.  You and your wife split the responsibilities equally, and by any plausible account of the moral requirements parents owe their children, you and your wife are living up to them.  While being a good parent, you also have the opportunity to do many things you enjoy and pursue long-term projects that fit best into your life plan.  You and your wife both work less than 50 hours a week at jobs you both enjoy.  In fact, a few years back you were able to leave a high-paying job at a fancy law firm that made you miserable in order to pursue a less-lucrative but much more fulfilling career as a college professor.  You are much happier with this lifestyle, and you frequently tell others that “income” is not measured entirely by monetary compensation, but importantly includes quality-of-life opportunities, and such income cannot be measured easily in dollars and cents. Now suppose that one day out of the blue your wife decides to bolt, leaving you to raise your three children alone. Are you now subject to greater moral responsibilities in the sense that you are now morally required to do more things and sacrifice more of your projects and pursuits for the sake of your children? Or does morality permit you to continue with the path you are on, that is, you are able to discharge all of your parental obligations without making a change at all (any additional sacrifices being supererogatory)? More generally, are your moral responsibilities affected at all by the parental failings of your former wife?
3. Suppose a certain moral-political ideal requires certain outputs that can only be brought about by institutional schemes designed to produce such outputs.  Suppose that, upon further theorizing about institutional design, it becomes clear that the ideal can only be realized at the cost of other cherished values, a consequence not taken into account in the original conceptualization and explication of the fundamental ideals.  This is because at the ideal stage, the theorists made certain idealizing assumptions regarding the epistemic capacities of individuals and ideal institutional schemes.  What difference, if any, should such a finding make on how we should think about the structure and content of our fundamental values, moral responsibilities, and the demands of justice?  Should we revisit our reasoning that led to this particular formulation of the ideal?
4. Suppose that in an ideal society, everyone has as much liberty, educational opportunity, self-respect, income, and wealth as can be reasonably hoped for consistent with the principles of ideal justice.  Suppose that in our nonideal world we face a decision among two feasible policies options: (1) we can pursue a policy that will slightly increase equality in educational opportunity, but significantly decrease the income of the worst-off, or (2) we can pursue another policy which will maintain the (slight) inequalities in educational opportunity, diminish the social bases of self-respect, but increase, over time, the income of the worst-off. Which course of action should we pursue? What difference, if any, does it make to know that in an ideal society, we would have much more income, educational opportunity, and self-respect than we do now or can expect to have given our current feasible options?
5. Suppose that you are a partner at a fancy corporate law firm in New York city, with many lower-level associates and employees at your beck-and-call.  Suppose that you were able to achieve such a position partly because of the superior quality of your educational background (private schooling as a child and teenager, Ivy League undergraduate and law school credentials) in comparison to those who work for you.  Suppose further that you value greatly your own freedom and the flexibility your senior position permits you: you love being your own boss, getting around to things when you feel like it, not when some crotchety old man tells you to.  Now suppose that you come to learn that this flexibility you value so greatly—a flexibility made possible partly by differences in educational history—has serious negative health effects on those who work for you (the stress arising from unpredictability, etc.).  Does the fact that your position was made possible by differences in educational opportunities make any difference to how you ought to behave within the context of the employer-employee relationship?  Do such facts make any difference from the point of view of justice?
6. Suppose scientists were to discover certain biological and cognitive features possessed by the vast majority of people that results in irresponsible, irrational, and closed-minded behavior.  How, if at all, should such a scientific discovery affect how we think about fundamental moral-political values, such as autonomy, political equality, and democratic self-governance?
These questions, along with many others like them, fall within the broad scope of a more general philosophical terrain, covering such issues as the role, purpose, and value of ideal and nonideal theorizing, and how they relate to and influence each other.  These questions are extremely complex and of first importance.  The “problem of utopianism,” the problem of “complacent realism,” and the issues surrounding the ideal-nonideal debate are of central concern for moral and political philosophy.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Quote of the Day

I highly recommend Alison Simmons’ scholarly work on Descartes and his philosophy of mind, particularly perception and representation (she also has some great work on Leibniz).  Here is a nice passage on the place of consciousness in Descartes’ account of the nature of mind:
“Those of us who teach Descartes to undergraduates get an uncomfort­able feeling when we tell our students that all Cartesian thought is conscious. As I indicated at the start, the trouble comes not from post-Freudian sensibilities or from knowledge of the latest experimental work in cognitive and social psychology. It doesn’t come from stan­dard philosophical worries about memories and standing beliefs or even from a gut suspicion that this just has to be wrong. The worry comes from knowing full well that Descartes himself introduces all sorts of thoughts into the Cartesian mind that seem by his own lights not to be conscious. How could the champion of the conscious mark introduce so many apparently unconscious thoughts into the mind?” -Simmons, “Cartesian Consciousness Reconsidered,” Philosopher’s Imprint, Vol. 12, No. 2, 1-21 (January 2012), at 8.
Hint: perhaps Descartes provided a much more nuanced view of consciousness and the mind than textbook accounts attribute to him.  Perhaps in the rush to set forth the “Cartesian Mind” in order to brush it aside, many attribute to Descartes a conception of consciousness that he did not hold.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Descartes' Mind

I am currently working on a paper analyzing certain features of Descartes and Leibniz's philosophy of mind.  I will not go into details of the paper, but I would like to note how exasperating it is to read caricatures of Descartes by 20th century and contemporary philosophers of mind.  Do not approach Descartes through the lens of a philosopher (e.g., Gilbert Ryle, John McDowell, John Searle), look for Descartes scholars instead (ovbious enough, just felt like saying it out loud).

(I still plan on posting soon some thoughts on ideal/nonideal theory.)

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Ideal and Nonideal Theory in Political Philosophy

I am currently working on a paper on ideal and nonideal theory in political philosophy, focusing on Rawls' approach, which has set the framework of debate over the last 40+ years.  It is an extremely complex area of thought that is (in my mind) essential to any theory of political morality, rights, justice, etc.  Hopefully be able to post about in the coming weeks, see if you fellas have any thoughts.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Epistemology and the Philosophy of Mind

I am currently working my way through Timothy Williamson's Knowledge and Its Limits. Although there is much (much) to disagree with, it is highly recommended.  The important interconnections between epistemology, philosophy of language, and the foundational role of the philosophy and metaphysics of mind is on full display.  Take a look.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Moral Machines

Interesting hypothetical that will eventually become relevant.  Thoughts?

Moral Machines--From Whose Point of View

A friend sent me a link to a New Yorker piece--link below--that pointed out that the self-driving cars that Google is developing will sometimes have to make "moral" decisions. The author, Gary Marcus, provides this example: "Your car is speeding along a bridge at fifty miles per hour when an errant school bus carrying forty innocent children crosses its path." Should you swerve, with the expectation that your car will fly off the bridge and you will die, or simply slam on the brakes with the expectation that you will hit the bus fast enough to kill many children (you being protected by your airbag)?

Marcus points out that the computers that control cars will have to make such judgment calls in a split second. My concern is: how should they do it? In particular, whose perspective should they take on?

One perspective is that of you, the driver. It seems to me that you are not required to turn your car if you expect to die as a result. It's not your fault that the bus cut in front of you, and I'll suppose that going 50 mph is within the speed limit. It would be heroic of you to sacrifice yourself for the children, but it's beyond the call of duty. I will suppose that you would not do it.

The other perspective is that of a neutral party (of course there's also the perspective of the children and their loved ones, but it's hard to see why the computer would take their perspective). I think it would be permissible, and that there is positive moral reason, for someone who had the power to flip a switch and cause your car to swerve off to the side in order to save some number of children. You and your car constitute an innocent threat to the children, but I think innocent threats can be killed to save a greater number of innocent victims. I will suppose that a neutral party would divert your car, thereby killing you, to save them.

Should your car take your perspective, as though it is your agent? Or should it take the neutral perspective, as we would want state installed machines to be programmed if they could intervene in such situations? I can see reasons on both sides, but I'd love to hear what thoughts those of you who read this post have.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Hayek and the concept of law

I've been away for a while but I would like to get discussions rolling again. I plan on blogging a few thoughts regarding Hayek's theory of law and his (brief) comments on legal positivism. It seems to me that he was either deeply confused about contemporary legal positivism or simply inexcusably out-dated in his reference to a long-since-altered theory of legal positivism.  We'll see where this leads.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Question regarding the right to freedom of contract

Question for fellow-bloggers and readers generally (if there are any): does the right to freedom of contract depend on the existence of a "free market" social context?  In other words, if we are in a social context that would be accurately characterized as an "unfree market" (in the moral sense, i.e., depending upon a moral ideal of a "free market"), would individuals possess the right to freedom of contract, or is that right somehow circumscribed and limited in specific ways (the particular limitation determined by the nature of the normative "facts" on the ground)?

Wednesday, March 14, 2012


I have made extensive edits and additions to my post below on Consent Theories of political legitimacy/obligation.  Take a look.  Comments and criticisms are hoped for.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Quote of the Day

This passage does a great job of expressing what I believe is of central importance in understanding not only the what is morally important in the idea of equality, but also what is fundamentally important in the idea of freedom:

The real point of the maxim that all men are equal may be simply that all men equally have a point of view of their own, a unique angle from which they view the world.  They are all equally centers of experience, foci of subjectivity.  This implies that they are all capable of being viewed by others, imaginatively from their own point of view.  They ‘have shoes’ into which we can always try to put ourselves; this is not true of mere things.  Joel Feinberg, Social Philosophy 93-94 (1973).

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Deliberative vs. Participatory citizens

This is an interesting passage from Jason Brennan’s The Ethics of Voting:

Let’s describe two kinds of democratic citizens.

1.  Deliberative citizens have frequent crosscutting political discussion.  That is, they frequently consider and respond to contrary views.  They are careful in forming their own political preferences.  They are able to articulate good reasons on behalf of contrary views.  They have high levels of political knowledge.

2.  Participatory citizens engage heavily with politics.  They run for office, run campaigns, vote, give money to campaigns, attend town hall meetings, engage in protests, write letters to the editor, etc.
Diana Mutz’s empirical work shows that deliberation and participation do not come together.  Deliberative citizens do not participate much, and participatory citizens do not deliberate much.  The people who are most active in politics tend to be (in my words, not Mutz’s) cartoon ideologues.  The people who are most careful in formulating their own political views and who spend the most time consulting contrary views tend not to participate in politics.

Being exposed to contrary points of views tends to lessen one’s enthusiasm for one’s own political views.  Deliberation with others who hold contrary views tends to make one ambivalent and apathetic about politics.  True believers make better activists than cautious, self-skeptical thinkers.  (Imagine a street evangelist saying, “Hear ye!  My religion might be the one truth path, but, you know, there are good grounds for doubt!”)  Crosscutting political exposure decreases the likelihood that a person will vote, reduces the number of political activities a person engages in, and makes people take longer to decide how to vote.

 In contrast, active, participatory citizens tend not to engage in much deliberation and tend not to have much crosscutting political discussion. Instead, they seek out and interact only with others with whom they already agree. When asked why other people hold contrary points of view, participatory citizens tend to respond that others must be stupid or corrupt. Participatory citizens are often unable to give charitable explanations of why people might hold contrary views. (This is worrisome, because people who tend to demonize all contrary views tend to be unjustified in their own views).

Quote of the Day

From Loren Lomasky, Libertarianism as if (the other 99 Percent of) People Mattered, 15 Social Philosophy & Policy 350, 369-70 (1998):

That brings us to the question of that which is beyond the pale of toleration by cooperative libertarians. I do not have any neat schematism for the display of these breaches. Rather, I can offer nothing more exact than this rule of thumb: All those measures that deliberately or foreseeably trample on the rights-respecting activity of some to advance the interests or designs of others merit all the disdain and noncooperation libertarians can muster. If slavery were still around and enjoyed the support of millions of one's compatriots, it would be the paradigm of an institution with which no accommodation is possible. But it is not exactly bold and provocative theorizing to send one's moral principles into battle against Simon Legree. Since slavery is blessedly dormant, the War on Drugs is perhaps the best example of a contemporary practice enjoying wide popularity with which libertarians must conscientiously refuse any degree of accommodation. Hundreds of thousands of individuals have been jailed for illicit chemical consumption; civil rights have been obliterated by glinty-eyed G-Men; vast swatches of our cities have been rendered unlivable by fallout from the battles. To be sure, drug crusaders have offered rationales for these policies, rationales that invoke timehonored moral concepts. Some drug warriors profess that by threatening to lock up drug users and then carrying out those threats, they are acting for the sake of the users' good. It is a wondrous if not entirely benign feature of human lips that they can be employed to say virtually anything. This is one of those cases where discernment is needed to distinguish between the plausible and the pathetic. The level of discernment which is needed to see through the various drug czars' rhetoric does not, I confess, seem to me to be great. Whether great or small, though, I do not see that a conscientious libertarian can have any truck with this crusade. One may not relieve oneself of the burden of one's unpleasant neighbor by informing the authorities where he keeps his stash, and one may not become one of those authorities. Period

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Quote of the Day

I highly recommend Loren Lomasky’s Libertarianism as if (the other 99 Percent of) People Mattered, 15 Social Philosophy & Policy 350 (1998).  This article deals clearly with many issues I have been thinking about, specifically the relation between libertarianism and democracy.  Indeed, the fundamental issue Lomasky sets out to resolve is the relation between two facts (if one is a libertarian): (1) Libertarianism is the correct political morality, (2) the vast majority of our fellow citizens disagree with the status of libertarianism.  Here is an excerpt:

“For those who believe that libertarian precepts can be read off the book of nature by all those who enjoy the moral equivalent of something like a tenth-grade reading level, it is virtually unavoidable that those who fail to subscribe to libertarianism will be regarded as dunces or as wicked. The alternative libertarianism, what I shall refer to as cooperative libertarianism, is more generous. It is willing to concede that the nonlibertarians among whom one lives are mostly well-meaning, honorable people with whom one may cooperate without thereby dishonoring oneself. (Of course, just as the fact that one is paranoid does not mean that one has no real enemies, so too are there nonlibertarians—and libertarians!—who genuinely are evil and stupid.) Nonlibertarians are, to be sure, importantly mistaken concerning a momentous matter, but that mistake discredits neither their intellect nor their character. Possession of moderate goodwill and moderate intelligence do not immunize people from statist persuasions. Indeed, neither does an abundance of goodwill and intelligence. That is because the moral terrain that must be traversed in order to arrive at the libertarian destination is steep, rocky, and dotted with mirages. Nongeneralizable items within one's personal experience heavily influence the likelihood that one will achieve that happy consummation. Rawls refers to these epistemic obstacles as the "burdens of judgment.”  Let me offer some examples that specifically relate to acceptance of (L). …” [at 360].

Vallier's Libertarian Rehabilitation of Hobbes

Check out Kevin Vallier's interesting post on Hobbes, public reason, and libertarianism.  From the post:

However, the problem with traditional libertarians is that they confine the range of reasonable disagreement to disputes about how to make libertarian property rights more determinate and resolve disputes among legitimate property holders. In other words, they think the range of disagreement is rather small and so arbiters have limited authority.

But let’s confront traditional libertarians with an undeniable truth: reasonable people disagree about way more political and moral matters than the scope of libertarian property rights. In fact, the large majority of reasonable people find libertarian conceptions of property rights deeply objectionable. And many of those reasonable disagreements remain after they become familiar with libertarian arguments.

So let me pose a question to traditional libertarians (related to one of my previous posts): you want to set up a libertarian society because you think it is required by justice and to serve the common good. But your free and equal fellows reasonably reject your conception of property rights. As a result, the coercion you are prepared to use to defend your property against their encroachments will be coercion that they have strong reason to reject.

Libertarians avoid the problem of private judgment by implicitly assuming that libertarian property rights are the default no-coercion point. A society without coercion is a society with property rights. But that’s false. Property rights are coercive. That does not mean that property rights cannot be justified. It just means that the coercion involved in defending property rights must be justified to all persons.


Traditional libertarian, in at least one sense, Hobbes was less authoritarian than you.

Take a look at the whole post. Worth the read. I had a follow up comment in the Comments section:

Great post, Kevin, although I prefer more of a Lockean framework (very similar to Hobbes on the need for public authority due to differing interpretations of right reason, the umpire function, etc.).

Doesnt Hobbes allow for an existing Sovereign to conquer others, and thus, in the end, all that really matters is the power/ability to enforce norms?

How much of this relies on a prescriptivist view of "moral talk"? Is the Gausian view undermined if moral practice and moral claims are not authoritarian in the face of disagreement?

Gaus seems to pooh pooh the particularity problem (see OPR, p. 471, n.39), but it seems to me that he simply pushes it back a level to the level of "social morality." Hobbes and contractualism also seem unable to adequately answer Simmons: who ought to be subject to the contractarian requirements in the first place? What makes up a legitimate polity? How do we determine the boundaries? I'm not pursuaded by the "well, we'll just rely on history to answer that one" argument.

Kevin's response:

I think that constructivists about moral and political authority (which includes most contractarians) will answer that moral authority requires shared norms, practices, ideas, etc. The reason that Rawls privileges nations, in my view, is that they have a much higher degree of shared social practices and ideas and so can form a moral and political order with a thick enough set of norms to warrant other nations treating them as a unit. I think Jerry has a similar view, though he explicitly extends public justification to trade networks, as I remember from OPR. You might also read the appendix in Justificatory Liberalism on this subject.